CARCASONNE, France (VN) — Sky’s Chris Froome continues a battle on two fronts: one against the peloton and a second to win the hearts and minds of French fans.
On Sunday morning in Millau, French fans outside the Team Sky bus yelled out, “France loves you, Chris!” “Why don’t you race with FDJ?!”
Froome smiled as he signed a few autographs, but an incident on the Mende summit Saturday reminded how tense it can be out on the road.
An unidentified fan reached over and poured liquid on Froome as he pedaled past in the latest in what’s been a series of episodes during this Tour.
“It doesn’t get us down,” Froome said shaking his head. “We stay focused on the race.”
Mitchelton-Scott rider Luke Durbridge saw the incident Saturday and posted a message on Twitter overnight condemning the action.
“What I [saw] from the fans on the final climb towards Sky was disgraceful,” Durbridge said. “If you don’t like cycling, don’t come to watch.”
Froome said he appreciated riders standing up for him following a rash of incidents during this Tour.
“It’s nice to see that camaraderie and a lot of guys are speaking out about it,” Froome said Sunday. “I think the riders are sick and tired of it.”
The environment around this year’s Tour has been tense from the start. Froome’s then-unresolved Salbutamol case and comments from former Tour winner Bernard Hinault suggesting the peloton protest if Froome raced only seemed to increase the pressure.
Froome’s subsequence clearance in the case hasn’t seemed to have eased the tension. Team Sky was booed at the team presentation and Froome receives a few boos and jeers (along with many cheers) each day at sign-on ceremony and along each stage.
On stage 5 in Lorient, Sky rider Luke Rowe confronted a fan who held a sign that read “Sky go home.” Rowe took the sign out of the fan’s hand and placed it on the ground.
Things reached a boiling point on Alpe d’Huez when a fan shoved Froome as he wound up the 21 hairpins of the famous climb. A video clip of the incident was repeated on French TV. Twenty-four hours later another fan lobbed a yellow smoke bomb into the peloton on the route to Valence.
Team Sky officials have tried to downplay the hooligan behavior, telling reporters that the abuse has not harmed Sky’s attempt to win its fifth Tour de France in six years. Still, Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme chimed in last week encouraging fans to respect the safety of riders.
“I don’t actually recall it, but I’m not surprised,” Prudhomme said. “We’ve had a bit of that (abuse) … but it’s always been water. I wouldn’t know what it was.”
Things have gotten so bad that one team manager told his riders to steer clear of Froome during the race in order to avoid a possible mishap.
When asked about that Sunday morning, Froome replied, “It’s a pretty sad situation if that’s correct, if that’s true.”
Rowdy fans have long been a part of the Tour de France tradition. Anecdotally, there appears to have been a spike of incidents in the past several years as it seems fans are becoming more brazen in attempts to run alongside the racers, as if it were a cycling version of “Running with the Bulls” of Spain’s famous party in Pamplona each summer.
And the incidents involving Froome are not the most inflammatory fan incidents of this Tour. In the waning kilometers of the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) crashed after his handlebar became entangled in a fan’s camera strap. Nibali was forced to abandon the race with a fractured vertebra.